An MP has asked the equality and human rights watchdog to investigate why ministers hid documents from their own independent reviewer when they knew the information would link their “fitness for work” test to the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary, has told the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) of her “grave concerns” about how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) investigates deaths linked to DWP activity.
In a letter sent this week to EHRC’s chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, she explains her concerns that DWP failed to send crucial evidence about deaths linked to the work capability assessment (WCA) to the independent expert ministers had commissioned to review the test.
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last month that DWP had finally admitted that two letters written by coroners, and a series of secret “peer reviews” into the deaths of claimants who had gone through the WCA process, were hidden from Dr Paul Litchfield.
Since DNS revealed the existence of the documents in the years after Litchfield’s final report was published, concerns have grown that DWP deliberately covered-up evidence showing the fatal impact of the assessment on many disabled people.
In her letter, Abrahams (pictured) also says she is “extremely concerned” about the lack of official scrutiny of the treatment of disabled people by DWP and its private sector contractors, Maximus, Capita and Atos, which carry out the assessments.
She says: “As you will be aware, there are a large number of social security claimants who have died after being found fit for work or having their PIP [personal independence payment] refused or reduced.”
Abrahams asks Hilsenrath to launch an investigation into deaths linked to the WCA and PIP assessment processes.
She also raises concerns about DWP’s failure to tell her how many secret internal reviews have been carried out into claimant deaths over the last four years, and provide statistics showing how many claimants died shortly after being found fit for work or having their PIP claims refused or their payments reduced.
She tells Hilsenrath: “I am particularly concerned that disabled people are being specifically discriminated against by the Government-commissioned assessments for Employment and Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit.”
Abrahams, the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, has previously backed calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to the government’s social security reforms, and for any evidence of criminal misconduct in public office by ministers and senior civil servants to be passed to the police, two of the key demands of the Justice for Jodey Whiting parliamentary petition*.
An EHRC spokesperson said: “We have received the letter from Debbie Abrahams and we are assessing it.”
DWP insists that it “co-operated fully with the Litchfield reviews, and shared all relevant information which was requested by Dr Litchfield and his team” and has told DNS that it “was not asked by Dr Litchfield or his review for information on the specific cases you refer to”.
But DWP has been unable to explain how Litchfield’s team could have requested information – the secret peer reviews and coroners’ letters – if they did not know they existed.
To sign the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, click on this link. If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
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